Here’s how internet cables could be used as powerful earthquake detectors

10 Jul 2018

Gunnuhver, a geothermal area located at Reykjanes Peninsula in Iceland, where the research was conducted. Image: Fotokon

The fibre cables that bring us the internet could have another use – a potentially lifesaving one.

A great deal of the modern internet consists of a labyrinth of data cables running across the oceans of Earth. These cables send and receive unfathomable amounts of data and are vital to uphold the communications standards expected by many in the modern world.

As well as enabling fast download speeds, uninterrupted video calls and a variety of other digital features, fibre cables could be used to detect earthquakes, according to a new study led by volcanologist Philippe Jousset from the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences. The study was published in Nature Communications.

An unprecedented result

His research team sent pulses of laser light through a 15km stretch of conventional fibre optic internet cable on the Reykjanes Peninsula in Iceland, using it as a proxy to measure volcanic activity.“Our measurements revealed structural features in the underground with unprecedented resolution, and yielded signals equalling data points every four metres,” said Jousset.

He added: “This is denser than any seismological network worldwide.”

Leveraging the power of internet infrastructure to detect earthquakes is by no means new. As recently as last year, researchers had been making breakthroughs in the area. In October 2017, Stanford University researchers repurposed some of the cables on its campus along with an underground sensor network to create a figure-eight-shaped seismometer.

Jousset said the difference with this project is that the cable used is much longer, and it is the first study to use such measurements for seismological objectives. “Our measurements using fibre optic cables depicted the ground far more accurately than ever before.”

He added that the technique is akin to installing a seismometer every four metres, enabling them to find a previously undiscovered fault in the rift between the American and Eurasian tectonic plates, as well as known faults and volcanic dykes.

A cheap way to monitor earthquakes

The researchers noted that the widespread nature of the cables all over the globe could allow for a cheaper method of monitoring earthquakes we may not be cognisant of. Cables under cities at higher risk of earthquakes, such as San Francisco and Tokyo, could be of major help.

Subsea cables may also be of use and further studies are being planned to see whether the underwater cable systems can be used for seismic measuring.

The cables under the ocean’s surface could detect subsea earthquakes, ground movements of tectonic plates and water pressure variations, potentially helping oceanographers as well as seismologists. Researchers from Italy, Malta and the UK recently completed a study into that very subject, with positive results.

So, as well as allowing you to stream ultra-HD video, data cables could also end up saving lives in a crisis.

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects